Friday, April 30, 2010

Stross - Your Birthday is Nearly Here!

Stross is my oldest son, and each year his birthday calls me to a time of remembrance, reconciliation, and renewal.

In 2008 I wrote an article for The Lutheran magazine about Stross' birthday and how I regard May 5 as a personal holy day. Also, in the preface to Involuntary Joy, I describe something divinely dynamic that happened to me on Stross' 5th birthday (yes, his golden birthday). I wrote how, on that day, I caught an unvarnished look at the reality of Stross' life - through his eyes - and realized that I wanted to be like him when I grew up.

Both the article and the book's preface were attempts to explain how Stross' life has changed mine forever.

I continue to make such attempts – like this vlog, for instance.

I want to share how, as the fifth day of May approaches each year, Stross' excitement over birthday preparations becomes palpable. I want you to know that birthday planning is practically a full-bodied experience for him, with every pore of his body oozing energy whenever he announces how many days remain until the calendar shows May 5.

I am not sure you can understand how our family relies on his constancy as much as we do the changing of the seasons – walking with him through exciting days of anticipation much like an advent calendar with substantially more days. For instance, we know that Stross will begin to talk about his birthday soon after the new year. We might be able to collectively hold him off from full planning mode until after Valentines' Day - maybe St. Patrick's Day - but once there are no commercial holidays on his radar, Stross locks on a May 5 target.

The full month of April is dedicated to plotting (what gifts to ask for), planning (where to spend the day), and even preening (what to wear).

Stross insists on appropriate birthday attire, so "preen" is definitely the word of choice. When choosing what to wear for his birthday, he sometimes tries things on to be sure they are birthday appropriate. In the past two years, the primary criteria has been his ability to wear a shirt with a number that corresponds to his age. In 2009, I was grateful to Peyton Manning for wearing jersey #18. This year I am thankful to the Garner Boy Scouts for being Troop #19. Also, because Stross will soon be joining that troop, this year's choice of attire is especially fortunate.

On every May 5 since 1991, I have privately spent part of "Stross' special day" evaluating my life and how I have been changed by motherhood. Stross' fifth birthday made that process even more intentional.

Motherhood: I may spend the full measure of my life attempting to explain what that means for me; and, how I define motherhood will forever be connected to how I define my relationship with Stross. I do not negate the reality of my separate relationship with Skye, my other, equally remarkable son. But long ago I understood that my maternal sensitivities had been shaped by Stross in ways that lie outside my human comprehension. For Skye, that means he has a much different kind of mom than what he might have had should his older brother arrived without complications.

I recognize the futility of attempts to explain things I cannot know because they never came to pass. Still, I feel compelled to try; every May 5 I feel pulled to the possibility of it. If only you could feel what courses through me. If only you could comprehend the fullness of it. I watched the vlog of me reading from Stross' baby book and desperately want to try to describe what makes me cry as I read.

I am not sad.
I am not disappointed.
I am not overwhelmed.
I am not defeated.
I am grateful.
I am in awe.
I am remembering.
I am renewed.
I am ... ah, yes ... I Am.

Despite all the words I typed above, I remain at a loss for words. That's probably why I chose to read you the story as I recorded it in Stross' baby book – a bizarre mixture of words too big for him to understand and a childlike recounting of things I want him to understand. As you listen, feel what you might then let me know what you felt.

Maybe what you feel will come close to communicating what I want you to know.

Amen. May it indeed be so.

Miss Blaser's Contemporary Issues Class

Not long after Involuntary Joy was published, a former student of mine named Tali Salberg Paulson read the book while pregnant with her first child. (Here is a vlog with Tali when pregnant with Baby #2.) She shared her reactions along with a hope: "I wish your book were required reading for young women before they get married and begin having children."

I had not anticipated her statement, for young women were not necessarily an audience I had in mind when writing Involuntary Joy. (Then again, I'm not exactly sure who I had in mind. I just knew was compelled to write it.)

As Tali continued to share her reaction and reasoning, her wish made a lot of sense. So much of the time we live re-actively, postponing any thoughts of how we would deal with less-than-ideal circumstances until our life circumstances prove less than ideal. I sensed that Tali, who as I stated was pregnant with her first child, was quickly processing some things she had not thought of before. In fact, she confessed goading her husband, Chad, into some what-if conversations. The poor guy probably thought: "Where the heck is all this coming from?"

Anyway, I immediately thought of Tali and her wish when I got a call from someone (thank you, Mr. Kofron) informing me that Miss Blaser was having a difficult time locating books to purchase for her class. Within an hour, I had passed books along to Miss Blaser via Mr. Kofron's bus route, and later that week, her Contemporary Issues students (hello, Gretchen Thomas and Jamie Hoff) were reading Involuntary Joy.

After the all-school assembly last week, I enjoyed hearing about their collective reading experience – primarily about the kind of topics they discussed because of what they read. And, Tali, I think your wish came true for the women in this class. I think they have vicariously lived some things that are getting them ready for whatever is to come in their own lives regarding marriage and motherhood.

Fortunately, odds are in their favor. Most likely they will not experience anything close to what life has presented us. But if they do, I think that they, somehow, feel better prepared – at least more aware, and that can be a wonderful proxy for preparation.

So, thank you again, Miss Blaser, Gretchen and Jamie. I am honored to have been even a small part of your learning experience. I promise to write more someday about the questions you asked during the vlog about coping abilities and the decision to describe situations with family members in the book. Wonderful questions. I think they deserve even more reflection ... someday.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

"Hey, Can We Talk?" Thanks, WCLT, for Doing Just That

On Thursday, April 22, I was the featured speaker at an all-school assembly for WCLT High School (Woden-Crystal Lake-Titonka). The invitation came after several factors fell into alignment:

1) Students from W-CL-T heard me speak about writing Involuntary Joy during a presentation in an English class at Waldorf College.

2) The students were also taking Miss Sara Blaser's Contemporary Issues class at WCLT High School. When Miss Blaser allowed the class to choose a book to read for discussion, they asked for permission to read Involuntary Joy.

3) The class read the book and used its content for discussions about parenting, motherhood, birth defects, raising children with disabilities, working mothers, and more.

4) Meanwhile, Lisa Pleggenkuhle Grummer, who attended the same high school I did, was regularly substituting at WCLT. She read Involuntary Joy at about the same time as the class, and she invited me to lunch in her home for our own time of sharing. In fact, you may have met her in a previous blog.

5) Lisa suggested that Miss Blaser invite me to come speak to WCLT's Contemporary Issues class or even to students in the Biology and Anatomy classes. Lisa even wondered about the possibility of having an all-school assembly.

6) Principal Ken Kasper and Miss Blaser agreed that there were a lot of topics addressed in the book that could be enlightening for all the students, and so, I accepted their kind invitation to present an all-school assembly.

Today's vlog features outtakes from our time together. This high school (approximately 80 students) is a wonderful piece of living Iowa history, for school consolidations will soon end the days of graduating classes numbering less than 100. In fact, the school boards of Woden-Crystal Lake and Titonka recently voted to explore whole grade sharing with neighboring districts, and in coming years, students will no longer fill the halls of this current facility.

I felt honored to be standing in the WCLT gymnasium on Thursday (brightly decorated for prom) and talking to a group of young men and women who know full well that much of life is about adapting to change. Like our family, they have learned that you simply take what life hands you and keep moving forward.

To a student, each young man or young woman was courteous and attentive as I shared our family's story - my story. Clearly, each one–on either an academic or intensely personal level–understood that preparing for adulthood means anticipating unforeseen circumstances, whether fortunate or unfortunate, but not allowing them to make you afraid. Heck, many who stayed after to talk to me personally let me know that their lives have already been filled with challenges met or in the process of being met. And they are doing a great job of growing up to be exactly who they are meant to be.

I recognize it has become cliche' to say that children are our future. But, truly, I trust the young men and young women that I spoke to on Thursday to create a new way of living in our world. It is why I was comfortable sharing intensely personal stories. Perhaps hearing a bit of our family's experiences can better prepare them for whatever else life brings their way. Part of my hope is that they become more comfortable with a world where "normal" is defined broadly enough to include all the abnormal situations encountered by families living with and caring for persons whose lives fall outside of "the norm" - whatever that is.

And, yes, Gretchen, Jamie and Miss Blaser. I will still post the vlog we made about Contemporary Issues class. What a wonderful conversation! Thanks for making this all happen.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Child of Ours - Child of God

Parenthood brings endless moments of letting go. I've learned that most of time, the moments simply happen. Rolling over, sitting up, first tooth, first steps. We recognize them and celebrate them for the miraculous achievements they are.

But so many other moments are lost in the everyday stuff of childhood. Not crying when mom or dad leaves for work, crossing a street independently, a meaningful conversation with a friend, keeping a secret for all the right reasons.

Today we celebrated one of the moments that is easier to recognize: confirmation. Our youngest - our baby - affirmed his baptism. That means he publicly claimed responsibility for his faith. It also means that we – his parents – need to remember to stay out of his way where matters of faith are concerned. I don't think that means we won't continue to share our faith - our beliefs - with him. It simply means that we have been reminded that his faith is his to shape and share – just as mine is mine and Mark's is Mark's. Each relationship is a unique manifestation of God's love in our lives.

Faith is such an intimate thing. What it means to an individual, only God and that individual know. And that is as it should be.

I taught confirmation classes for more than 10 years. One of the refrains I regularly shared with the young men and women in those lessons was this: You cannot give someone faith. Faith is simply there to be recognized and claimed.

As parents, confirmation helps us remember that we have just as much to learn about faith from our children as they do from us. But I think that has always been true. It is just that confirmation provides us with a formal reminder.

Today marked a moment when Skye got to say, "Make no mistake. This one is mine." And God responded, "Back at ya, Kid."

In a world where few are born to riches and few get to live the dreams that they chose, that is a wonderful affirmation. An affirmation of faith in a God who knows you and has called you by name: You, Skye, are my child. You are mine; I am yours, no matter what life brings your way.

Amen. May it indeed be so.

Friday, April 23, 2010

A Vist with Aaron 'Pete' Peterson

Mark doesn't get to talk shop often because very few are able to understand what he does. Plus, when he comes home, he is reminded that my technological vocabulary is significantly deficient, and my technological knowledge is near non-existent.

I imagine Mark as a bit lonely – professionally speaking - and even somewhat of an enigma to his colleagues. Therefore, when he launches into an explanation of his latest technological problem-solving feat, I, his primary attentive audience, attempt to respond appropriately and even feign enthusiasm when I feel lacking of any genuine kind.

As a lover of authenticity, I make these conversations with Mark an exception to my policy for authentic living – but for good reason: Mark knows I'm faking it. So that makes my reaction authentic. Yes? The greater good is served. Mark gets to fuel his excitement of accomplishment, and I get to share in his wonderful state of intelligent euphoria.

He amazes me. I think he always will.

Anyway, when Pete showed up Thursday for an unannounced visit, Mark got to talk shop with Pete for a bit after he toured the radio, television and multimedia labs. I got to catch up with Pete too, but my questions are not at all technical as you'll see in this vlog. Plus, you will get to witness one of the most laid back individuals I have ever, ever - let me even add one more - ever known.

Listen for these remarks to naturally flow from Pete during conversation:
"Aw, that's Ok."
"Don't worry about it."
"I'm not too concerned."
"Thanks. I try."

There were more, but that's all I caught in our brief vlog together. I should have taken video of him sauntering down a hallway too. I'm not sure what would ever make Pete move quickly. I am not even confident that something catastrophic would. Pete is just that laid back.

Great to see you, Pete! Please continue to stay in touch.

BTW: Aaron Peterson, Waldorf College BA class of 1995, received one of the first baccalaureate degrees awarded in the college's history. I regard he and his five communications classmates as true pioneers. Thanks for staying to learn with us.

Monday, April 19, 2010

"I Didn't Make it to Broadway"

Life has a way of reminding you of where you have been before it taunts you with notions of where you might consider heading. At least that's how my lunch felt on Friday.

For four hours, Lisa Pleggenkuhle Grummer and I shared as much as we could about where life has taken us since we both attended North High School. The moment came courtesy of Lisa's invitation for lunch in her beautiful home near one of Iowa's oldest state parks. She had recently read Involuntary Joy and had a desire to learn more – not really about anything specific – just more.

Even though we now live within miles of one another, the last time that we were under the same roof, Lisa was a sophomore and I was a senior in high school. That was 28 years ago - a quantity of time so unbelievable to me, that I used a calculator just to be certain. Plus, I drug out my senior photo and yearbook just to see what I might have looked like in her memories for so many years.

Since 1982 our lives have filled with moments equally unbelievable to both of us. For her, the moments include a heart surgery in her late 30s and a miscarriage in her early 40s. For me, well ... if you read my blog, you know. And, yes, I realize I only listed traumatically negative things. But I think it is fair to note that negative life experiences demand a greater degree of personal reconciliation. We must redefine life based on things that never came to be while embracing the things that actually did.

Note these clips from our vlog:
Lisa: "I knew (Joy) as ... energetic ...who I felt was going to be on Broadway..."
Joy: "I didn't make it to Broadway."
Lisa: "But I'm not disappointed...."
Joy: "Sometimes I have to remind myself, I'm not disappointed, either."

I bring up the Broadway thing again near the end of our vlog, after we both share details about our respective miscarriages, specifically the way we handled the "why" question. I guess I wanted to circle back, because I wanted to share how giving up my dreams of Broadway wasn't as simple as never having claimed them in the first place.

I was always good about letting others paint my Broadway dream for me; and for reasons only fully known by them, they shared those ideas - those dreams - with me. Always flattered and intrigued, I merely flirted with the notion as a young woman, while taking baby steps in its direction. But I never chased that dream at full stride, and I am not fully sure why. Fear? Lack of deep passion? Insecurity? Maybe a combination of it all. I really don't know.

Do I think I really could have performed on Broadway? There was a time I would have answered "yes." In fact, I could answer that way now. But I regard the idea as folly – a chasing after a wind that never really blew my way.

A more pragmatic me declares: "Let's be real." Pursuing a Broadway dream likely would have meant not attending Wartburg College (I had turned down a musical theatre scholarship to another college and ignored the need to pursue dance and voice lessons.); not meeting Mark (Before meeting him, I continued to take on roles quite regularly. After meeting him, only one, and that was three years after our second child.); and not having children as early in life as I did – if at all (self-explanatory, yes?). See also the epilogue of Involuntary Joy.

In case you need to read these words, I'll type them for you: I have no regrets. Never have, and hopefully, never will. That doesn't mean I haven't grieved for dreams not fully realized, however.

Dreams are no small matter. I believe the greatest lesson I've learned in life thus far is that you grieve dreams whether you have them or not. And so, I need to learn how to dream. To claim one as my own, and then nurture it into reality. I've watched my husband do it. I continue to help my oldest son do it all the time, and now I'm watching my youngest son give himself permission to do it. I am surrounded by dreamers. So what is my problem?

The closest I've come to seeing a dream fully realized is getting Involuntary Joy into print. But I sense more connected to that dream, and I need to give myself permission to pick it up again. I sure as heck don't want whatever is perking to take 28 years - not even the seven years I took writing the book.

Hmmm ... I wonder what my dream will be. What is yours?

Friday, April 16, 2010

Motherless Children

Today hundreds of thousands of students nationwide fell silent. They voluntarily relinquished their right to speak as a way of bringing attention to the abuse suffered by persons born gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered (GLBT).

It was a day dedicated to making the world a safer place for those who are targets of bullying, name calling, harassment, physical confrontation and other forms of abuse.

Yet some feel the day is a trick. A conspiracy to "target" children "in an effort to increase tolerance" for a "behavior" they deem evil. And so they encourage parents to teach their children to set themselves apart, to regard GLBT students – their classmates and peers – as people with whom they should not associate.

In essence, they teach their children to ignore a day that seeks to eliminate bullying.

How can a day dedicated to anti-bullying be wrong?

Statistics consistently show that 9 of 10 students who identify as GLBT are regularly harassed at school. In fact, two of the top three reasons students are harassed at school are actual or even perceived sexual orientation and gender expression.

This day should be seized as an opportunity to show compassion in action – a chance to be love personified for those who need to see that "love your neighbor as yourself" is real.

So what does it mean if children are taught to ignore a day that is dedicated to eliminating abuse?

It means many children continue to feel unloved, not accepted, and not safe.

It means many children continue to be isolated.

It means fear wins when faith is weak.

It means we failed our children.

I hope our children don't lose faith in us - or in the God who created them just as they are.

I hope they know they are not alone.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

In Awe

This week my blog has been visited by thousands of people, arriving to read about Marc Wheeler, the first openly gay student I ever taught. Going from an average of less than 100 viewers to over 4,000 for one blog (thank you deserves a thoughtful response.

But ... I'm not ready yet.

I will be though.

My thoughts are perking about commonality, differences, similarities, empathy and shared humanity, to name only a few things. Because my thoughts can flood in simultaneous torrents - like now - it's gonna take some time to narrow them to a navigational stream I can then flow into here.

Once I feel the words finding their way into a current, I'll post them as a blog - or even vlog - here.

Meanwhile, if you haven't read Marc's story yet, please do, and be sure to read the comments as well. You'll witness the power of one person's life - courageously shared as a way of letting others know: You are not alone.

Marc's Story

It has been my desire all along to touch lives with my blog. So, thank you, Marc, for your willingness to let me write and share your story. What began as a homework assignment became something much more.

Such is the way of life, isn't it? What begins as a thought or impulse can change someone's corner of the world - for good or for bad.

I hope you have a wonderful day. May your life impact someone else in a way that only you can. For good.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The First Openly Gay Student I Ever Taught

This blog is not like others I've done. I'm basically sharing my homework with you, because I feel the topic of my assignment is worth sharing. My task was to interview someone who is gay, asking him or her to describe any difficulties that occurred while growing up, attending school, and coming out to family and friends.

Many people generously volunteered to be the subject of my paper, but when it came time to choose, Marc Wheeler, now a working actor living in West Hollywood, Calif., seemed the full-circle choice. This homegrown Iowan was the first openly gay student I ever taught. I realized I didn't know much about what life was like for him during the years he was a student in my classroom.

It was time to learn.

We talked for two hours one night, and I learned a lot that will help me as I teach others who happened to be born gay. I have always respected Marc for his willingness to openly share who he is with the world. I hope you do too.

Marc Wheeler is likely not the first gay student I have ever taught; however, he is the first student I taught who openly identified himself as gay. In fact, I am fairly confident that I taught students born with a same-sex orientation before Marc came along in 1997 – whether any of us knew it at the time or not. In fact, a publicized medical study* estimates the prevalence of male homosexuality as between 2% and 10% of the population, thus supporting my suspicion. That study, published in 2004 by the Journal of Theoretical Biology, reported the estimate along with disclaimers about the difficulty of calculating such a statistic. The problem is basically two-fold: 1) Homosexuality is defined in different ways, and 2) The varying degree of acceptance among differing cultures affects the ability to collect data. By the time Marc, a 4.0 GPA student, was ready to attend college in the late 90s, his identity as a man who happened to be gay was something he was ready to define and accept. However, his parents were unaware of his sexual orientation and related identity struggles.

Interestingly, Marc’s dad may have had suspicions that were not admitted aloud, as he seemed to think that having his son attend Waldorf College would keep him away from people who were gay. That might be why his father, who Marc described as “a conservative, Christian, Republican, fundamentalist,” asked the college admission counselor during Marc’s college visit if Waldorf “had a gay problem.” He didn’t want his son being persuaded into a lifestyle that he regarded as sinful. Marc, embarrassed by his father’s question, reassured both men that being around gay people was not an issue that concerned him. In that moment, Marc privately thought of what he wanted – a place where he could live as who he believed himself to be: a man who is gay.

After years of repressing emotions that had nowhere to go, Marc felt “ready to burst” into a new life; and so, two days after he arrived on campus, he began to openly identify himself as gay. He used the occasion of meeting new people at theatre camp to finally express feelings of attraction to other males. The admission was something he had feared happening in elementary and middle school, for at that young age, Marc believed identifying himself as homosexual would mean – according to what he had learned from his experiences in churches (i.e., Pentecostal, United Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran) – that he would “burn in hell.” In fact, the first time Marc heard the word “homosexual” in late elementary, he secretly looked through a dictionary at home to verify the meaning. He learned it was someone who is “attracted to the same sex.” Taken aback, he thought: “That simply can’t be. I love God. I cannot burn in hell.” Fearing damnation, Marc hoped that simply would not come to be, for he already found males physically appealing.

Marc’s earliest introductions to anything regarding homosexuality were universally negative: the condemnation he felt from the church; remarks made by family members; references in health classes to AIDS and “the homosexual lifestyle”; and comments made by a male history teacher about a nefarious dictator who had been believed to be bisexual. When the teacher mentioned bisexuality, he added an explanation that sounded like a distasteful aside: “And, you know what that means – you are attracted to both boys and girls.”

Absent of positive adult support, Marc felt he could not come out until college. As he described it, his coming out was an inevitable, necessary step toward self-actualization, and he understood that part of the process meant redefining his relationship with his parents. In a way, he needed to introduce himself to them as who he had been all along – their first-born son who happened to be gay. He chose to tell his mother first on a weekend home from college. She asked him to not tell his father. She told Marc that she wanted to break the news to him. It took her nearly a year with consistent prodding by Marc. During that year, she sent occasional care packages to her son full of Skittles candies and other things that depicted rainbows, a symbol of gay pride. Marc remembers getting a lot of Skittles from home that year, his mother’s way of silently showing her love and support.

His father’s reaction when he finally learned of Marc’s sexual orientation perplexed Marc. On another trip to his hometown of Polk City, Iowa, Marc learned that his mother had told his father, yet his father made no indication of having heard. So, Marc looked for occasions to be around his father and to strike up conversation, testing his father’s emotional temperature, yet his father never took the lead. Finally, after nearly a week of uncomfortable exchanges, Marc initiated the topic: “Dad, did Mom talk to you about me?” His father responded, “Yep, and I’m not happy about it.” In the ensuring conversation, Marc’s father shared his belief that Marc had fallen into a gay lifestyle out of a desire to be accepted into a group of students at college. He believed that for Marc to be accepted into this group, he had to become like them. Marc attempted to convince his father that there was no such group; that he simply was gay and always had been. When his father threatened to remove him from Waldorf College, Marc asserted both his identity and his independence by refusing to allow that to happen. He had found a place where he could safely prepare for a career while learning things about himself that he had not been able to before.

Marc wondered how his parents could claim that they had no idea he might be gay. His reflections of childhood include memories of annual performances in a lip-syncing contest held in the summer by the city of Polk City. Beginning at age nine, Marc looked forward to entertaining crowds while dressed as either a male or female entertainer and willingly took on the female role when teamed with his brother for a male/female lip-syncing number. Performing became a socially acceptable way to express an identity that felt more comfortable and more authentic. To be clear, Marc did not identify as a transvestite or a cross-dresser. He simply appreciated the freedom to express characteristics more often aligned with those identities than those of hyper-masculine males.

Because I have always known Marc as a male who happens to be gay, I was not aware – until this paper – of the intensely personal identity struggles he navigated, particularly in relation to his father. I was aware that his father was having a hard time reconciling Marc’s sexual orientation; however, I wasn’t aware of how long it took and how isolated Marc felt during that time. The ability to have conversations with family members about important topics is a valuable part of belonging to a family unit. As I teach, I will now be more aware of the personal pain and toll that is exacted on students who are not only far from home, but also emotionally isolated from people who define key relationships in their lives. Children depend on primary relationships to help them form their identities. I hope to become even more sensitive to the difficulties that face young men and women who come to an awareness of their same-sex gender orientation without the full support of their parents or siblings.

Marc told his siblings – a younger sister and younger brother – when he told his mother. His brother’s reaction: “Yeah, I figured you were.” His sister stated that she knew, too, determining that the man Marc introduced as his friend at the time was more than a typical friend. Marc described his sister as “a little gay activist” and shared that she was and continues to be his most ardent source of family support. His exact words: “She TOTALLY had / has my back.”

Even with that source of support, Marc’s family – in many ways – became the students he knew through his major courses and theatre activities. He regularly engaged them in conversations about what it meant to be a gay male in an era where good ole boys were terrorizing and then horrifically killing gay males like Matthew Shepard. On the one-year anniversary of that murder, Marc sent an email to all faculty, staff and students, asking them to visit a web site created in Matthew’s honor and to become more aware of the injustices faced by those who are gay. I still have a copy of the email response I sent to him in 1999, thanking him for the courage he showed through his personal activism. The fact I printed and kept our exchange is a testament to the impact his life had on mine. He was a pioneer at Waldorf College, an institution of higher learning whose Gay-Straight Alliance was honored by the Iowa Pride Network in 2009 as the best college GSA organization in the state – 10 years after Marc sent his all-campus email.

What I will remember most about this conversation with Marc, however, are the stories about other children calling him “faggot” or “gay” beginning in elementary. Most striking was when, at the end of 6th grade, he was on an orientation tour and a large, athletically built, senior male stared across the cafeteria at him as he walked with his tour group, and then loudly yelled out, “FAGGOT!” All eyes looked toward Marc who – embarrassed and humiliated – could only shake his head “no” and attempt to protest this negative slur for an identity he could not yet accept. I thought: “Where were the teachers?”

Marc helped me understand the extreme difficulty present in those moments. Teachers might be insensitive to the harm that occurs from name calling, and it takes great courage for the victim of the slur to make the offense known. As Marc explained, sharing news of the incident is practically an admission of its truth at a time when the student might not yet be ready to bear the consequences. “When children identify someone as gay,” said Marc, “they may well be right, but it is so difficult to admit, because you are not yet ready to accept all that goes with it.” I want to be a teacher that any student would be comfortable coming to. I want him/her to feel that he/she can rely on me for support as he/she determines what it means to be who he/she is. To help, I will continue to support GSA events and create a classroom environment that upholds all students as valued members of society, while including lessons that highlight the harm of discriminatory language and actions. Thank you, Marc, for being my teacher.

When Your Baby Has Birth Defects

For 16 years I have been a guest speaker in the Human Growth & Development class at Waldorf College. Each year, the faculty member assigned to the course invites me to share what it is like to be the mother of a child born with physical and intellectual disabilities.

I always consider the invitation an honor, a privilege and a responsibility.

The class, which occurs every semester as part of the college's education curriculum, is largely comprised of men and women who want to be educators one day. Chances are great that they will encounter a student - an entire family even - whose life has been shaped, in part, by chronic disabilities. If I can, through the recounting of our family's story, introduce them to the emotional, spiritual, financial and physical ramifications of forever living through such a perfect personal storm, then they might be better able to connect with others in a meaningful, productive way.

My goal is to instill a measure of empathy and understanding that can help them meet the demands of their future jobs to the best of their abilities.

Stross accompanied me to the class the first time I spoke at the invitation of Prof. Marcia Trystad. He sat on the lecture table, happily playing with toys and delightfully distracting students with his infectious smile. He was oblivious to the words I shared and what they meant about our life together. Stross continued to accompany me to the class each semester for the next few years, playing off to the side of the room or sitting in the back with Mark.

Now he is taking college classes - one per semester - himself. And he continues to keep track of the days I go to speak to the class. With excitement and eagerness in his voice, he asks, "Are you going to talk about me again?" (For Stross, that is affirmation that he is famous.) "Are you gonna tell them everything?" His questions, and the joyful tone in which he asks them, serve as permission for me to vulnerably share details about his life - actually his and mine together - trusting the audience will respect what is shared.

To Stross, the details of his life make for wonderful storytelling. It is about him, after all. And life - his life - is all good stuff.

I love that about him; I treasure him.

I treasure the life - the story - our family has been given to share.

Involuntary Joy (book website)

This vlog is but a compilation of brief clips, letting you see what such a class period is like. A lot has stayed the same in the past 16 years, but each time is different. I continue to trust it is worth the hour or more of renewed pain that accompanies remembrance.

Please enjoy. Please appreciate. Please respect the story you hear.


Note: I have spoken to many other audiences, tailoring the message for the audience's needs. The groups have been comprised of educators (of all variations), wellness students, education students, high school students, parents of children with disabilities, friends and family of parents of children with disabilities, church members, and caretakers of persons who have disabilities. I still want a chance to talk to medical professionals - doctors and nurses. They figure as such a dominant part of the stories that belong to persons with disabilities. I would be deeply honored to share what that has meant to us - the good, the not-so-good, the hopeful, the confusing. I'll let you know when that finally happens. I'm counting on the fact that - eventually - it will.

Friday, April 9, 2010

1,000 Elephants - Get Moving, Herd!


Before I do anything else today, I want to share a story with you, because it might help reduce the number of Christina's elephants. Christina is a former student of mine who is now married and the mother of a beautiful little boy named Quentin. At the end of March, Quentin was seriously injured, allegedly by his caregiver, a woman that Christina and her husband, Grant, had interviewed and selected as the person to care for their son while they worked.

I learned of the horror they have been living early on – courtesy of another former student and through the wonder of Facebook. A news report of what happened can be read here. Baby Quentin's Story

I have appreciated the opportunity to attempt to be a source of support through Quentin's CarePages. Yet, I know too well that emotional support - no matter how many people try to provide it - can feel elusive.

Those of you who have read Involuntary Joy know why this story hits home for me, for our family. Like Christina and Grant, Mark and I could not fathom how an adult - willingly or negligently - could harm or endanger a child. More than that - for me - I wrestled with the injustice of a world that would add such an offense to the life of a child already born with multiple, major birth defects.

Christina's CarePages post this morning spoke of 1,000 elephants standing on her heart:

My heart hurts tonight…It feels like there are a 1,000 elephants standing on top of it...That morning I packed him his favorite, bananas, for his morning feeding. I wanted him to have something special since I wasn’t going to be with him. I have no idea what happened in those few hours BUT IT HURTS! I know I dropped him off smiley, loving, and full of life and I picked him up so distant, sick and lifeless. He was not at all my baby. It hurts me so much to think what he must have gone through those few hours without me. I wonder so many things. The hurt is like NOTHING I have ever felt before…a hurt that I do not understand!


I think Christina chose her analogy well, for elephants are also used to describe things we don't want to talk about or things we avoid talking about. When there is an elephant in a room, we can avoid feeling vulnerable, for elephants make it difficult to get a good look at what is really going on. And so, sometimes, we leave the elephants in the room.

That's not my nature; I don't accommodate elephants.

I find it difficult to avoid talking about things that cause pain or inflict an injustice. Injustice makes me angry. I don't like being angry so I try to channel my energy into aiding understanding. It's how I've been coping with the wonder of my life these past, nearly 19 years – shoving elephants out of the way and getting conversations started. "Hey. Let's talk about it."

The rest of Christina's entry today describes her desire to make a difference by "talking about it." She wants to tell her family's story to the greatest degree possible in an attempt to spare someone else. I identify with her desire. It's probably why I wrote Involuntary Joy and then began to blog shortly after. I wanted to share what happened to us, hoping our experiences could help others in some way.

And so I want to invite you to help me, help Christina. Let's help her move some elephants. Will you read her story and then talk about it with someone who could benefit from hearing it? Will you post a link to my blog so that others can discover her story, my story, and maybe feel less alone?

People need to be reminded that children are vulnerable.

People need to be reminded that child care is a vital need.

People need to be reminded that catastrophic illness or injury can cause a health care crisis for a family that will not go away quickly or easily. In fact, it could last the lifetime of that child - that family.

Most of all people need to know they are not alone.

God is with them - with us - yes. But it helps knowing that God has hands, arms, legs, ears, a face - you name it - as we grapple with earthly things that don't make sense. During the kind of times that Quentin, Christina and Grant are going through, families need to see God at work through you. You help us keep our hope alive and our faith strong enough to meet the challenges of each new day.

So, are you with me? Let's start moving some elephants off Christina's heart. Thanks!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Picturing Your Vocational Calling

If you've been following my blog, you know that I enjoy the opportunity to reconnect with alumni and learn what is happening in their lives. On Easter Sunday, I had the privilege of spending the afternoon with Erica Hanna Mayer, class of 2002, at the end of a holiday weekend spent with family. (Erica's mom, Teresa Hanna, is Waldorf College's cheerleading coach.) This hometown-girl-made-good is now a promotions producer for WCCO-TV in Minneapolis/St. Paul. In her spare time she continues to edit performance soundtracks for high school cheering squads and lend her impressive communication skills to charitable causes.

Erica excels at directing music videos, videography, photography and social marketing. Most impressive, however, is the way she uses those skills to improve the lives of others. She is currently raising money to build wells on behalf of an organization called My Charity Water, a cause she took on as a way of celebrating her 29th birthday.

In her words: All of my birthdays have always been about stuff. Stuff I don't want, stuff I definitely don't need. And to be honest, I hardly even remember what I got last year. So this year, I'm giving my birthday up.... I'm turning 29 years old, and instead of asking for gifts, I'm asking for $29 or more from everyone I know. It's not going to me, though. All of it is going to build freshwater wells for people in developing nations.

One way she is helping raise money is by using her photography skills; and on Sunday, she treated me to one of her photography sessions. As you can see by my new profile photo, Erica is incredibly talented. She has a knack for capturing her subject's personality as she digitally captures his or her image. Naturally creative, Erica sees a setting or location like an artist sees a canvas - full of possibilities shaped by angles, colors, light, and proportion – a backdrop for beauty. To Erica, the world is full of beautiful people and beautiful things; so that is what she brings to life through her lens.

As a promotions producer for WCCO, she helps safeguard the station's brand, shaping the way viewers regard this CBS-affiliate through the impressions and images associated with it on screen. Erica knows that brands are communicated as what they are, not created from things they are not. What makes her an Emmy and Promax award-winning producer are the same qualities that make her a wonderful photographer: She has the ability to highlight the essence of people, showcasing who they are, not conveying them as something they are not.

I sense that Erica is in the midst of renewed vocational discernment. Eight years after her college graduation and on the verge of her 29th year, she is experiencing the periodic questioning that no one escapes. At some point in life - or even at multiple points - each person introspectively ponders: Am I using who I am and what I can do to meet the world's needs in the best possible way?

Her questioning reflects my questioning right now, and I'm thankful that she has captured this moment in time for me. I look at the photos she's taken of me (my favorite is shown above) and think: Is that really me? Who am I and what can I be doing to meet this world's needs in the best possible way?

Thanks, Erica. I had a blast.

P.S. - Please visit the site for her cause and help provide water to people in need.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Hunting for Eggs

Stross made sure we hunted for eggs in my parents' yard this weekend. Kudos to Grandma Fran for her ability to kick into high gear and prepare for the hunt on short notice. Her grandbabies may be teenagers now, but they are not too old to enjoy the harried pace of the hunt.

Chocolate candies, jelly beans, coins.

Mostly pure fun.

And watching Stross navigate the yard while listening to his incessant, delightful chatter? Pure joy.

Involuntary joy.

May you be renewed in this season of renewal.

May you find joy in simple moments.


Thursday, April 1, 2010

A Sure Sign of Spring - No Foolin'

Here is a sure sign of spring in Iowa: It's Tractor Day for students studying agriculture at the local high school.

I appreciate the reminder of what this time of year means to area farmers.

Crops soon to be planted; a bountiful harvest anticipated.

Hope abounds.

No foolin' on this April 1.

It's Spring!

Have a blessed Easter weekend.